There are as many reasons to bitch about 1995's sputtering thriller Assassins as there are stars in the sky, and I was ready for all of them except one. As none of the reviewers of 20 years ago bothered to tell me, because 20 years ago this wasn't something anybody would have been compelled to think about, this is the film with what is easily Julianne Moore's all-time worst performance. She's been not-great in not-great roles more than once, but this is the only time I identify where she actually made things worse. A shitty, incomprehensible character with the tedious name "Electra", who has that most mid-'90s of professions, sexycool computer hacker, would bring out the best in nobody, but Moore's performance only extends and exaggerates the parts of the character that are most aggravating, while counterbalancing none of them with any choices that suggest elements of the character not found on the page. Even in the utterly thankless role of Not Jodie Foster in the misbegotten Hannibal, Moore scrounged up interesting reactions and twists to scenes that were beyond redemption, but could at least be successfully made thornier. In Electra, she takes the absolute garbage part of "the female in a Sylvester Stallone picture" and somehow endeavors to show that there's less to the character than meets the eye. This movie was released, I want to point, just months after Safe. Maybe she was worn out.

The film's origins lie in one of the two scripts Chicago-based siblings the Wachowskis wrote in an attempt to impress the industry, both landing on the desk of producer Joel Silver. The other one was The Matrix, and it had some manner of cultural impact when they were able to release it as their sophomore directorial effort in 1999. Assassins, meanwhile, is the one they fought and failed get their names taken off, following a full rewrite by virtual nobody Brian Helgeland. Who's to say how much Wachowski is actually left, and how much was just the siblings seeing the final results and getting the hell away from it. It's not like the appalling blobules of story strong together by dreadful characterisations and invisible motivations are any more typical of Helgeland, whose very next feature credit was for the magnificent adaptation of L.A. Confidential.

The concept, anyway, feels Wachowski-ish. In some empty hellscape, a carnival barker encourages the dispossessed and mad to take out their frustrations by sidling up to his shooting gallery to murder U.S. presidents. No, I'm sorry, I must have been thinking of something else. This version of Assassins is the one where Rath (Stallone), an assassin, is tired and self-loathing and wants to retire. Worse still, all of his attempts to get that One Last Payday out of the way are stymied by a different assassin, Bain (Antonio Banderas), who sweeps in to kill Rath's targets before the older man can manage it. Bain, we'll learn at some point or another, is a starry-eyed fanboy in addition to a psychopath, and his entire career goal is to impress Rath in the act of surpassing him as the new world's greatest assassin. So if you squint, possibly while on an LSD trip, this is a dressed-up version of the elegiac John Wayne Western The Shootist. For reasons that I won't go into because I frankly can't quite follow all of the plot gyrations, Rath has to kill the hacker Electra but has a change of heart and tries to protect her instead, which puts the pair of them on the run as whatever organisation sends out instructions to the world's assassins on a severely blue instant message system, completing the film's grand tour of computer technology in the movies of the '90s, assigns Bain to take them down.

Trying to figure out what's not working about Assassins is like trying to figure out why it hurts when you put your hand in an open flame - stop thinking and get the hell out of there, dumbass - but at any rate, one of the things that most emphatically guaranteed that it would be no good at all was Silver's assignment of the job to director Richard Donner, who is more than capable of making excellent movies. But nothing in his generically promiscuous career prior to 1995 suggested that he'd be capable of making an excellent Sylvester Stallone movie, or even get close to it. His preferred mode, demonstrated over and over again in virtually all of his movies following 1978's genre-defining Superman, was easygoing, charming, and goofy. His one great '80s-style action movie, 1987's Lethal Weapon, is the polar opposite of Stallone's vehicles in the same period: it's a screwball romantic comedy between two straight men, with guns and drug runners only reluctantly sucked up into the vortex of their acerbic banter. His film immediately preceding Assassins, 1994's Maverick, is a pleasingly shambling comic character sketch that's wearing Wild West clothes mostly for the hell of it. Faced with a leading man whose one constant, throughout his entire career, was an inability to smile or look like a playful thought had ever crossed his mind even as a child, Donner had simply no entrΓ©e into the material, especially since in a battle for the film's soul between himself and Stallone, Stallone would always, always come out the winner.

So we end up at a film with no clear hand on the rudder, which is undoubtedly part of the reason that the plot developments in Assassins feel like a sleepy five-year-old was just throwing ideas out there. And perhaps it's also the reason why the action is so sloppily stapled onto the rest of the movie, and why the action is so goddamn bad - there's a slow motion "escape from the exploding building sequence" that is, in all honesty, one of the most aggravating, unpleasant pieces of action cinema that I think I have ever seen. It's one thing for an action movie to have an arbitrary, confusing order of events: lots of them do, some of those standing out as very good examples of the form. What absolutely cannot happen is an action movie having such a plot and then also having messy, ugly, uninteresting action, and it's here that Assassins goes from "this is bad" to "this is one of the worst big-budget action movies of its decade".

There is one thing in the film worth saving: Banderas is crazy as hell and it's adorable. While Moore is busily smothering her character (except for a speech about a sparrow near the end, where she finally hits that "half-formed ideas sliding around each other defensively" speaking register that she does well with as a general fallback position), and Stallone simply glowers sadly through his, without even the unacceptable attempts at camp that makes his performance in the same year's Judge Dredd at least memorable, Banderas is... I don't even know what Banderas is. Stuck with some greatly regrettable hair by the make-up people - or perhaps the word is "emboldened" - and given the most overtly colorful character in the script, the actor starts huge and never scales back. His Bain twitches his head around like a drunk bird, he whimpers like a dog, he gazes at Stallone with deranged hunger that suggests a gender-reversed All About Eve as directed by Lucio Fulci. I would never call it a film-saving effort - to be honest, I'm not even sure if this is "good" or merely bad in ways that are more astonishing than boring. But at least he's committed and kinetic, something true of no other aspect of this greatly dreary, criminally overlong slog.